Con Man Overboard: Wall Street Prepares to Pull the Plug

Fat Cat on the BeachLately I’ve been thinking a lot about the economy. Not our economy, the shadow economy run by the corporate masters of America. You can’t see it. No one can. But trust me, it’s booming.

It’s estimated that trillions of dollars from corporations, wealthy individuals and governments of small and corrupt nations are teeming through offshore accounts, robbing the home countries of domestic tax revenues. An Economist special report on offshore tax havens in February of this year cites, “James Henry, a former chief economist with McKinsey,” as saying he “believes the amount invested virtually tax-free offshore tops $21 trillion.”

Corporations, now considered people by the U.S. Supreme Court, like to refer to this money as “dry powder” just “sitting on the sidelines” waiting to be invested at any time. Indeed it is, in the most nefarious way possible.

In this magical world of paper finance the “too big to fail” banks are royalty. Since the banking collapse of 2008, they have emerged even bigger, far more profitable and just as leveraged.

Margin debt ratios, the extent to which financial institutions are leveraged in equities, are once again at pre-crash levels. After cooling off in the initial aftermath of the crisis, banks have steadily dipped their big toes back into the debt pool and begun packing on leverage at alarming rates. What’s even more insulting than the obvious recklessness this presents is that they’re not even using their own funds. The Federal Reserve has directed the U.S. Treasury to print money like mad since the crash in an effort to maintain liquidity within the system, with the banks all-too-happy to gobble it up. Given the ridiculously low interest rate environment maintained by the Fed since this time, it makes sense that the banks would take cheap government money and reinvest it.

It’s where they have invested it that warrants examination.

The easiest place for the public to spot the massive flow of liquidity is in the equity markets. The Dow Jones Industrial Average has more than doubled since it bottomed out near 6,600 immediately after the crash. And while some corporations have indeed posted substantial profits the past couple of years, overall performance and profitability are nowhere even close to explaining the gains on the Dow.

bank pull quoteThe next, most obvious place bank liquidity showed up, was in the commodities markets. The price of oil and certain agricultural products have been high for so long we have forgotten how outrageous the pricing truly is. Non-productive speculation in the commodities market has been upwards of 50 percent over the past few years, a phenomenon Dodd-Frank has yet to fix. This essentially means that nearly half of the price that you pay for a given commodity such as gasoline or milk is due to a bunch of high-frequency traders sitting at computers in Atlanta, Chicago and London.

Cheap, easy money from the Fed also means the dollar is relatively weak compared to foreign currencies. This works to the advantage of U.S. export companies, for now. But if our money is cheap, then by definition the flipside of this equation is that money is expensive in other places. The combined effect of a weak dollar and rampant speculation means that we are basically exporting inflation around the globe. The problem here is the timeless axiom: “What goes around, comes around.”

There are a couple of policy issues at play right now that should give everyone in the United States pause. The first is that the Federal Reserve has already indicated that its bond-buyback program is slowly coming to an end. As such, interest rates are gradually beginning to climb. Anyone with an adjustable-rate loan should pay even closer attention to this trend. The other consideration is that the rules of engagement in the swaps and derivatives markets haven’t changed all that much since the banking collapse. Therefore, there are still hundreds of trillions of dollars at stake in markets that no one can see.

Now add to the mix that regulators believe they will finally be able to put in place position limits on a good chunk of the activity in the derivatives market by the end of the year, and we are set for a few hairy months of fast and furious transactions as companies look to close out riskier investments. These factors alone foretell a period of volatility, particularly when the “recovery” hasn’t been so robust. Oh, and there’s a little matter of who will be the next chair of the Federal Reserve, which actually matters. A lot.

Having just vomited a bunch of financial mumbo-jumbo, now let me go back to where we began.

I’ve just given you a cursory explanation of why I believe we’re in for some serious upheaval in the financial markets between now and the end of the year. Over the next couple of months I think we will see interest rates continue to climb, a huge (albeit temporary) sell off in the commodities markets as the dollar rises and regulations tighten, and the equities market will be pounded. All of these things, were they to happen, would of course negatively impact most Americans. Higher loan costs, reduced value in pensions, and the beginning of inflation would be crippling to the American economy right now considering how tenuous the recovery is and how, according to the Associated Press, four out of five Americans are either living paycheck to paycheck, unemployed or working part-time, or below the poverty line.

Guess who will be just fine?

Because the banks are still allowed to engage in proprietary investing–meaning they can own the actual products they trade on the markets–and have trillions of “dry powder” sitting “on the sidelines,” they are more than poised to take advantage of what lies ahead. They’ll be dictating how, when and to what extent it will happen and doing so without leaving fingerprints.

Think of it like the mafia. Banks are like caporegimes and hedge funds are their hit men. Using government money the banks pack on debt and send funds to their offshore subsidiaries that, in turn, invest heavily through the hedge funds registered to places like the Caymans or Virgin Islands. Any time the big banks want to pull the plug on the equities market, they’ll do so without hesitation because they’ll have 10 times the money betting that it does.

It’s the perfect con.

Good thing we’re on to them. The corporate elite and the politicians who do their bidding will have to get up pretty early in the morning to fool the American public again. Unless, of course, there’s some big distraction like a new war in the Middle East or something. But that would be truly ridiculous.

There’s no way we’d ever fall for that old gag again.

NEW FOX, SAME HENHOUSE

Considering who is about to be in charge of administering LIBOR, the Obama Administration and U.S. regulators might want to pay close attention to how the process unfolds.

How Wall Street Cornered the Market
by Taking Control of the World’s
Most Important Financial Benchmark

Twitter: @jedmorey

There is a scene in the Godfather II when the Hyman Roth character, played by Lee Strasberg, admonishes Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone over the death of the character credited with building Las Vegas out of a “desert stopover for GIs.”

Roth fixes his steely gaze angrily on Corleone and says, “That kid’s name was Moe Greene and the city he invented was Las Vegas. And there isn’t even a plaque or a signpost or a statue of him in that town.”

The same could be said of Thomas Jasper, the architect of the biggest gambling venture ever invented: the swaps market.

In her book The Futures, Forbes writer Emily Lambert describes how in 1981 Salomon Brothers “pulled an investment banker named Thomas Jasper out of a cloistered office and set him up on Salomon’s trading floor with its loud, swearing, cigar-smoking men.” Jasper’s job was to figure out how to turn a new type of banking agreement called an interest rate “swap” into a contract that could be traded on an exchange much like a commodity. By 1987 Salomon’s new product was ready for market, and as Lambert notes, “by that spring, there were $35 billion worth of bond futures contracts open at the Chicago Board of Trade, and there were $1 trillion worth of outstanding swaps transactions.”

For Wall Street this was like graduating instantly from slots to craps.

Twenty years later, unregulated swaps would be at the heart of the global financial meltdown and the very banks responsible for creating them would be considered “too big to fail.” A lethal mixture of deregulation, manipulation and greed would transform swaps—a type of investment known as a “derivative” in which two parties exchange risk with one another in a negotiated agreement—into opaque mega investments that many traded but few understood.

Today, the global derivatives market is estimated to be somewhere around $1.2 quadrillion—more than 14 times larger than the world economy.

After the crash in 2008, the whole world became acquainted with these investments and some of the toxic assets they were based on. Yet since the crash, and despite the best attempts on the part of regulators to get their arms around the world of derivatives, surprisingly little has changed in the way they are packaged, sold and regulated.

By staying one step ahead of regulators, banks have continued to rake in historic profits. Bart Chilton, a commissioner at the Commodity Futures and Trading Commission (CFTC), is one of the U.S. regulators charged with implementing rules that would curb risky speculative behavior on the part of banks and protect American consumers. He expressed his irritation in an interview with the Press, saying, “The financial sector has made more profits every single quarter since the last quarter of 2008 than any sector of the economy by like a hundred billion dollars. So they crash the economy and still make more than anyone else.”

Chilton points to the aggressive bank lobby against regulators as one major impediment to reform. “They have fuel-injected litigation against regulators,” he laments. “There are ten financial sector lobbyists for every single member of the House and Senate.”

Despite this frustration, Chilton believes in the importance of speculators “in determining what the prices of things are, whether it’s a home mortgage or a gallon of milk.” Instead of squarely blaming the banks, he believes the question “is whether or not government has allowed too much leeway so that the markets have simply become a playground for speculators to roam and romp.”

One of the most important determinants in pricing everything from mortgages to the multi-trillion-dollar derivatives market is the London inter-bank offered rate, better known as LIBOR. Barclays, the British banking giant, thrust LIBOR into the headlines last year when it was discovered that it was among a handful of banks found to be manipulating daily rates for its own benefit. The scandal rocked the banking sector and sent European regulators searching for a replacement to LIBOR or, at the very least, a new third-party administrator.

Charting LIBOR’s new path was left to Martin Wheatley, who was head of the Financial Services Authority in the U.K. when the scandal broke. The recommendations, known as the Wheatley Review, included the formation of a panel charged with finding a new host for LIBOR that would restore confidence to the market and ensure transparency in the rate-setting process.

In a twist even Michael Corleone would appreciate, the panel chose Wall Street.

LIBOR: “A huge, hairy, honking deal.”
Beginning in 2008, rumors began to circulate in the financial world that several of the London banks were involved in influencing the daily posted LIBOR rates. During a 2012 House Financial Services Committee investigation into the matter, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner admitted to hearing the rumors while he served as head of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. In his testimony, Geithner said he attempted to warn U.K. and U.S. regulators but assumed they would “take responsibility for fixing this.”

What the British and American governments knew and when they knew it unfortunately matters little at this juncture, as both have since levied financial penalties on the banks involved that amount to a slap on the wrist. What matters now is how rates are set going forward to ensure some degree of integrity. To understand how the Wheatley Review panel merely chose a new fox to guard the world’s financial henhouse, it’s important to understand how LIBOR is calculated and how much is riding on it.

LIBOR rates are determined on a daily basis. According to an Economist article that details the scandal, “The dollar rate is fixed each day by taking estimates from a panel, currently comprising 18 banks, of what they think they would have to pay to borrow if they needed money. The top four and bottom four estimates are then discarded, and LIBOR is the average of those left.”

Rates were submitted to the British Bankers Association (BBA), a nonprofit third-party administrator responsible for gathering and posting the data. In theory, the arms-length distance of a disinterested third party provided enough oversight and assurances to the market that rates were being determined fairly. Only the rates weren’t based upon actual market rates. Rather, they were estimates supplied by traders from Europe’s largest banks and therefore surprisingly susceptible to manipulation and, as it turns out, collusion.

Traders were caught periodically manipulating these estimates in order to gain a trading advantage in the market and maximize profit on recent transactions. Moreover, because LIBOR is an indication of the perceived health of a financial institution, bankers had an added incentive to suppress rates to artificially illustrate confidence among their colleagues. In short, everyone was in on it. Because of the global credit crunch, few banks were actually lending large sums to other banks since both sides had cheap and easy access to government dollars to provide market liquidity. This reality made LIBOR even less realistic.

Former Barclays president Bob Diamond initially responded to the scandal by admitting that while manipulation occurred, it didn’t happen “on the majority of days.” The Economist said Diamond’s response was “rather like an adulterer saying that he was faithful on most days.” Diamond subsequently resigned and so far three U.K. traders, Tom Hayes, Terry Farr and James Gilmour, were swept up in the LIBOR price-fixing scandal. According to the Financial Times, “Mr. Hayes, Mr. Farr and Mr. Gilmour are the only individuals to face U.K. criminal action to date in a global scandal that has seen three banks pay a combined $2.6bn in fines for attempting to manipulate interbank lending rates.”

Many bankers have distanced themselves from the importance of the scandal by calling it a victimless crime. Bart Chilton had a choice expletive for this attitude, and then added, “If it’s a home loan mortgage, or a small business loan or a credit card bill, if you buy an automobile or if you have a student loan, about everything you purchase on credit is impacted by LIBOR. It’s a huge, hairy, honking deal. If somebody says it’s a victimless crime, I bet you it’s a banker.”

Michael Greenberger, a professor at the University of Maryland, has been an outspoken critic of the way derivatives have been regulated for several years. (The Press first spoke with Greenberger for a 2008 cover story on the price manipulation of crude oil.) He weighed in on the Obama Administration’s reaction to the LIBOR price-fixing scandal saying, “This Justice Department is settling these LIBOR cases for what you and I would consider to be traffic tickets.”

Considering who is about to be in charge of administering LIBOR, the Obama Administration and U.S. regulators might want to pay close attention to how the process unfolds.

The Wheatley Review panel chose NYSE Euronext to step into the BBA’s role as administrator of LIBOR. On the surface, choosing the members of the New York Stock Exchange—one of the oldest and most trusted brand names in global finance—to oversee rate-setting seems like sound concept. Only the NYSE isn’t the clubby, self-governed body of individual members it once was. Today the exchange is a publicly traded, for-profit business whose shareholders include none other than the world’s biggest bank-holding companies.

“They’re moving from a disinterested nonprofit that couldn’t do the job,” exclaims Greenberger, “to an interested for-profit. There’ll be less transparency I bet in the way that rates are set.”

Chilton is equally apprehensive at the idea of the transition: “When there’s a profit motive, I think it’s always suspect. That’s why key benchmark rates like LIBOR in my view should be monitored or overseen by either a government entity, a quasi-government entity or a not-for-profit third party that doesn’t have a vested interest in what the rates should be.”

How LIBOR will be determined in the future is still being hashed out. A spokesperson for NYSE Euronext declined to answer the Press’ questions on the record, instead directing us to their standard press release. Most observers agree, however, that the days of aggregating estimates should be a thing of the past.

“These benchmarks need to be based upon actual trades,” says Chilton, “not a poll of what the money movers believe it should be.”
As far as the bankers’ claims that price-fixing was a victimless crime, there are several municipalities that beg to disagree. The cities of Baltimore and Philadelphia, among others, have filed suit against several banks claiming severe financial injury due to LIBOR manipulation. “That’s the hidden story of Detroit,” says Greenberger. “Detroit got clobbered in the swaps market.”

Greenberger also warns that “pensions are still in this market.” That’s a scary proposition considering the underlying risk and leverage that still exists off bank balance sheets.

Eric Sumberg, the spokesman for the New York State Common Retirement Fund—the nation’s third-largest pension—says State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli is watching the LIBOR transition closely.

“There have been some calls for moving from LIBOR’s banker’s poll to a rate-setting process that is more directly based on a broader universe of transactions and on actual market activity,” Sumberg wrote the Press in response to our inquiries. “Such a change over time could have the potential to improve transparency and integrity in rate-setting, but potential details of any such process have not yet emerged. We will continue to monitor developments in this area.”

Yet even when the proposed rules are made public and the administration of LIBOR has fully transitioned, NYSE Euronext will still only be the titular head of LIBOR. The real force behind the market is neither in London nor New York. Atlanta, home of the Intercontinental Exchange (ICE), is the new financial capital of the world.

ICE in his veins
Many of the toxic assets the public became aware of after the 2008 crash have worked their way through the system and been mostly written off by many of the largest financial institutions. Much of the credit for the industry’s stunning recovery belongs to the U.S. Federal Reserve’s low interest rate policy and aggressive liquidity practices known as quantitative easing. Much like the exuberance that preceded both the tech-bubble crash of 2000 and the mortgage-backed securities crash of 2008, a capital bubble established by the Federal Reserve is artificially propping up the market.

Hedge funds and bank holding companies fueled their own recovery by using deposits, borrowed federal funds and leverage to drive the equity market to historic highs and post speculative profits in the derivatives market. And while the financial sector was scrambling to regain its footing, regulators in Washington, D.C., attempted to keep pace by passing reforms to prevent the next global financial crisis should the Federal Reserve change course and remove liquidity from the system while simultaneously allowing interest rates to gradually climb.

In 2010, Congress passed the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act in an effort to curb speculation and create greater oversight in the financial sector. It was a monumental legislative task that has proven even more difficult to translate into regulatory policy. Regulators at the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission have been working against bank lobbyists and the fact that the markets are global and U.S. regulatory authority only reaches so far.

To complicate matters further, banks have been busy changing the rules of engagement by shifting markets from classic bilateral swaps between parties to futures contracts, which are more standardized agreements traded on exchanges and therefore subject to greater regulatory scrutiny. In theory, exchange-traded derivatives will provide the transparency that regulators seek. In practice, however, this capital shift might simply move risky investments from the frying pan into the fire, as futures exchanges are global, meaning U.S. regulators must rely heavily on the voluntary cooperation of foreign exchanges.

The one person set to benefit from this capital shift is Jeffrey Sprecher, founding chairman of the ICE. Though not a household name outside of investment circles, Sprecher has emerged as the unlikely king of the global trading exchange industry. In little more than a decade, he helped transform the commodities market from a $10 billion market to more than a half a trillion dollars, with the ICE being a huge beneficiary.

The growth of trading on the ICE has been so explosive Sprecher is about to close on a deal to purchase the vaunted NYSE Euronext for $8.2 billion. The deal has already been approved by European regulators and awaits final approval in the U.S. Once completed, Sprecher will not only run the world’s most famous trading exchange; he will also extend his reach into the global derivatives market as the acquisition includes NYSE Liffe, one of the world’s largest derivatives trading desks.

Nathaniel Popper’s front-page story in the business section of The New York Times on Jan. 20, 2013 pulls the veil back on Sprecher, the man, and describes how he grew a little-known Southern exchange into a juggernaut capable of purchasing NYSE. As Popper himself writes, “It sounds preposterous.” Given the inevitable capital shift sparked by U.S. regulators, Popper also notes that “Wall Street firms will have to move trading in many opaque financial products to exchanges, and ICE is in a perfect position to profit.”
Popper’s piece brings forward a story that few people know. Most have no idea that trading exchanges are even for-profit businesses.

And while he does a worthy job demystifying the business of exchanges, he overlooks the planet-sized regulatory loopholes that allowed Sprecher to convert a small energy futures trading exchange into a global exchange that is buying the most famous trading platform on Earth.

To call Sprecher an opportunist would be technically accurate but cheap and intellectually dishonest. He understood the inevitability of electronic trading and the superior potential it held. But there’s a danger in spreading the accepted mythology of Jeff Sprecher and his plucky exchange. Behind his story is the familiar invisible hand of Wall Street.

“The reason Sprecher has been so successful is he’s really representing all the major ‘too big to fail’ banks,” says Greenberger. “And they want him to succeed, and therefore he is succeeding.”

Missing from the brief history of the ICE are the loopholes that gave it life and the ability to flourish beyond imagination. It was the oft-spoken of— but rarely understood—“Enron Loophole” that gave corporations the legal right to trade energy futures on exchanges such as the ICE even if the corporation itself was in the business of energy. The second loophole was a maneuver by the Bush Administration that granted the ICE foreign status as an exchange despite its being based in Atlanta. This initiated a massive shift of trading dollars, and influx of new ones, into the ICE for one reason: This singular move placed the ICE outside the purview of U.S. regulators like Chilton at the Commodities Futures and Trading Commission (CFTC). Essentially, corporations could now trade energy futures electronically through the ICE without oversight or disclosure.

Moreover, the mere fact that the founding investors of the ICE are some of the world’s largest bank-holding companies, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs in particular, speaks to how little transparency there truly is.

This in no way takes away from Sprecher’s genius as a businessman. It simply illustrates how willfully ignorant we are to the business of Wall Street and therefore how frightfully far away we are from properly regulating it. Everything Sprecher has done is legal and ethical, to the extent there is an ethos on Wall Street. Where all of this hits home for the consumer is at places like the gas pump and the supermarket.

Now it’s easier to place the LIBOR issue in its proper context. Almost every “too big to fail” bank has a significant ownership stake in both the ICE and NYSE Euronext, soon to be one entity. This combined entity will also soon control LIBOR, the world’s largest rate-setting mechanism. In trader’s parlance, this would be considered the perfect “corner.”

But wait, there’s more. In the attempt to rein in speculation and manage risk in the marketplace, Dodd-Frank might have unintentionally become the gift that keeps on giving—to Sprecher.

The Future of Futures
The sheer size and complexity of the derivatives market overwhelm even the most interested parties—including Congress, regulators and bankers themselves—leaving average citizens utterly dumbfounded and sidelined. It’s little wonder. Banks that were too big to fail in 2008 are bigger today in 2013. The vast majority of the much-ballyhooed Dodd-Frank regulations have yet to take effect, and bank leverage is back at pre-crash levels.

A former trader who worked in both New York and London recently told me, “At the end of the day, this market is running on the [Federal Reserve]. Once they pull out it’s all over. Cheap money, loads of people making loads of money, but no lessons learned.”
Derivatives themselves aren’t nearly as difficult to understand as the markets they trade in. They are essentially risk transfer agreements between two parties, a way to hedge investments. The word ‘derivative’ refers to the fact that the agreement derives value from other investments: a bet as to how the original investment would perform. It’s helpful to once again employ the casino analogy.

Ten random players approach the roulette table and lay down $100 worth of chips on various numbers. Each individual gambler is making a bet, or an investment, collectively totaling $1,000.

Now imagine that another gambler watching the action on the roulette table calls his or her bookie and places a bet on the outcome of their total wagers when the wheel stops spinning. Having sized up the situation, the gambler predicts that overall this group will win and walk away with $1,100. But in order for this bet to be placed, someone else has to take the action and bet the group will lose $100, leaving them with $900. Before the ball drops on the number, the bookie connects the two outside gamblers and creates a new bet. This bet functions as the derivative investment because even though they’re not actually playing the game, they have a stake in the outcome.

In the real world of investing, the bookie is a trader and the gambler taking the action from the outside is a speculator. Sounds nefarious, but in reality, these transactions are essential to providing market stability.

“If we didn’t have speculators,” says Chilton, the CFTC commissioner, “consumers would pay disproportionate prices.”
There are three classic types of derivatives, all of which Chilton and the CFTC have been trying to rein in well before the crash introduced the world to this type of investment. All three involve counterparties, which trade these investments either directly or through exchanges.

But the differences between the three types of derivatives are diminishing. The first type of derivative is commonly referred to as a “swap.” This is where two parties exchange risk with one another in a negotiated agreement. In the United States, these have traditionally been deals between banks that fall under the purview of the SEC. The other two types of derivatives, futures and cleared derivatives, are negotiated similarly but must be listed and cleared on exchanges.

The CFTC and other regulators have long argued that these investments are similar in nature and should therefore be consistently regulated with complete transparency. With the exception of swaps, the investment created at Salomon Brothers in the 1980s, this was historically the case. But despite the similarity between swaps and other types of cleared derivatives, regulators allowed swaps to be treated as banking instruments that were held “off balance sheet.” Over the next two decades a flurry of deregulation and the growth of global trading reduced the transparency of derivatives trading and increased the size of the market dramatically.

The Dodd-Frank regulations were designed to put an end to this practice by requiring anyone who deals in large amounts of swaps to register as a swaps dealer and clear their trades through an exchange. Yet CNBC’s John Carney believes the new swaps regulations have already created a “flight to futures” from swaps, an unintended consequence of Dodd-Frank that will end up with a “world with less collateral and less capital, less transparency, less investor protection, more concentration of risk, and a huge unanticipated market transformation.”

In other words, the ICE will likely be the greatest beneficiary of Dodd-Frank.

Nevertheless, Chilton believes that there will still be “trillions, tens of trillions if not hundreds of trillions of swaps that will be traded in the U.S. and worldwide that will be regulated and have the light of day cast upon them.”

For his part, Greenberger agrees U.S. regulators are beginning to get a handle on the markets but thinks inordinate risk is still present in the market. He calls the original Dodd-Frank a “Rube Goldberg system” that was “prospective in nature. There’s still trillions of dollars of swaps that are operating in an unregulated environment.”

The world will have to hold its breath until these unregulated swaps run their course and settle in the global marketplace. Intelligent reforms such as margin and capital requirements, position limits and cross-border coordination with respect to regulation are indeed around the corner. These reforms essentially mandate that everyone involved in trading these agreements has enough money to cover potential losses and plays by the same set of rules.

“Ultimately we will have position limits,” Chilton believes. “I would be surprised if they weren’t in place by the end of the year.”
Greenberger also believes the world will begin to recognize universal standards, saying: “The CFTC has made it clear that for futures the foreign exchanges have to comply with U.S. rules.”

Even still, he worries that “this international guidance is a roadmap for banks to avoid Dodd Frank. Just trade in foreign subsidiaries.”
Chilton takes a more sanguine view on immediate concerns such as transparency, working with his European counterparts and the future of LIBOR, but he worries more about the things he cannot see.

“I feel like we’re going to get things done on capital requirements and on cross-border stuff so that other regulators come to where we are,” says Chilton. “But there’s a bunch of new things that are around the corner that we can’t see.”

He cites high-speed trading computers that he calls “cheetah traders” as an example of the unknown. “The cheetah traders, the high-frequency traders, are proliferating. They’re 30 to 50 percent of markets on average but during feeding frenzy time, cheetahs can be up to 70 or 80 percent of the market. There’s not one single word in the Dodd Frank legislation that deals with high-frequency trading. Not one word.”

Once again, pulling the strings behind this unseen phenomenon is Sprecher, the man responsible for making high-frequency trading what it is today.

Thomas Jasper will likely never get that plaque for inventing the investment world’s biggest game of chance. On a positive note, however, he’s alive, well and wealthy, unlike Moe Greene, who infamously took a bullet through the eye. But there are better-than-even odds that a statue of Jeff Sprecher will someday be erected on Wall Street. Or, at the very least, downtown Atlanta.

Wall Street Regulation

Glass-Steagall has made somewhat of a comeback with help from the Occupy movement and rising political stars like Elizabeth Warren… The only two political insiders you won’t catch talking about reinstating Glass-Steagall both happen to be running for president.

Part 4 of the Special “Off The Reservation” Election Series in the Long Island Press.

The Banking Act of 1933, commonly known as Glass-Steagall, was established to tame the harmful speculative behavior of an industry run amok in the early part of the 20th century; behavior many observers at the time credited for the market crash that precipitated the Great Depression. For some, the repeal of Glass-Steagall, by the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999, was the deathblow to financial prudence on Wall Street.

 In reality it was simply the formal recognition of careless financial practices that were largely in place already. Since the near-collapse of the banking industry in 2008, Glass-Steagall has made somewhat of a comeback with help from the Occupy movement and rising political stars like Elizabeth Warren, the former federal consumer protection advocate now running for Senate in Massachusetts. The only two political insiders you won’t catch talking about reinstating Glass-Steagall both happen to be running for president.

Wall Street reform is as important as it was in 2008 but both President Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney have taken great pains to avoid talking about it too much. For his part, President Obama seems content to rest on the laurels of the Dodd-Frank Act, Congress’s attempt to rein in Wall Street excess, which had enough support to pass but not enough to be properly funded or enforced. According to Romney’s platform, he would “Repeal Dodd-Frank and replace with streamlined, modern regulatory framework.” That’s the extent of his vision for the future of Wall Street according his platform. Ten words.

So while the rest of the country is suddenly talking about a law enacted almost 80 years ago, these guys aren’t going anywhere near it. The truth is, Wall Street reform and, more specifically Glass-Steagall, is more complicated, making it easy for Obama and Romney to be evasive.

So let’s answer two questions. What would actual Wall Street reform look like and what exactly was Glass-Steagall?

The purpose of the original act was to establish a barrier between traditional banks and the risk-taking investment firms, denying investment banks access to consumer deposits and secure, interest-bearing loans. The unwritten effect of Glass-Steagall, however, was to establish a culture of prudency in the consumer and business banking realm, leaving sophisticated professional investments to more savvy financiers who had the ability to calculate the inherent risk of a financial instrument. For decades to follow, the merits of Glass-Steagall would continue to be debated, but it nevertheless drew a marked distinction between the function of a consumer bank and an investment bank.

Today reinstating Glass-Steagall is a common rallying cry among those who decry the bad behavior of Wall Street. Its repeal has become the fulcrum of nearly every debate surrounding deregulation. Actually accomplishing this, of course, is easier said than done.

The best way to reconcile the debate over whether to reinstate Glass-Steagall is to appreciate that the culture of Glass-Steagall was more important than the act itself. Over time the restrictions placed on bankers under the act were chipped away, but the culture that governed the banking industry endured beyond its measures. Eventually, savvy bankers and politicians found ways to loosen its screws and interpret the act to their own benefit.

Don’t Just Blame Republicans

In 1978, President Jimmy Carter oversaw the passage of the International Banking Act, a bill that should probably receive as much, if not more attention than Gramm-Leach-Bliley. Essentially, the act allowed foreign banks or entities that engaged in “banking-like activities” to participate in domestic financial markets. For the first time, foreign investment firms were able to make competitive loans so long as they didn’t compete for consumer deposits; initially individual states could determine whether their regulatory structure could support this new activity. The government would go on to loosen restrictions governing the competition for consumer deposits and allowing bank holding companies to treat money markets like checking accounts.

In his book “End This Depression Now,” economist Paul Krugman argues that perhaps the most influential step with respect to the banking sector came with Carter’s passage of the “Monetary Control Act of 1980, which ended regulations that had prevented banks from paying interest on many kinds of deposits. Unfortunately, banking is not like trucking, and the effect of deregulation was not so much to encourage efficiency as to encourage risk taking.”

 By 1987 the bank holding companies, including foreign companies allowed to operate within the U.S. banking system, were granted access to mortgages to create a package of investments called mortgage-backed securities; the threshold for the amount of investing activity in instruments such as these was also increased, paving the way for the growth of investments backed by the strength (or weakness) of the consumer market.

During that same year, members of the Federal Reserve began calling for the repeal of Glass-Steagall as then-chairman Paul Volcker was providing the tie-breaking resistance. But this was a mere formality because by this time, Glass-Steagall was effectively over.

Yet even though most of the threads of regulation had been pulled from the overcoat that protected consumers from risky banking practices, the culture of prudent banking still existed to an extent; maintaining the Glass-Steagall Act on the books was an indication of this sentiment. Throughout the decades when regulations were steadily eroding, powerful national figures such as Paul Volcker under Carter and Reagan, and Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady under George H.W. Bush managed to temper the enthusiasm of the movement.

That George Bush Senior heeded their admonitions was an admission that the public’s appetite for deregulation was actually beginning to wane in the post-Reagan hangover. Richard Berke’s New York Times article of Dec. 11, 1988, on the eve of the Bush presidency, encapsulated this feeling. Berke wrote, “Lawmakers and analysts say the pressure is fed by a heightened public uneasiness about deregulatory shortcomings that touch the daily lives of millions of Americans: from delays at airports and strains on the air traffic control system to the presence of hazardous chemicals in the workplace to worries about the safety of money deposited in savings institutions.” Alas, these four years would prove to be a momentary hiccup in the deregulation movement.

During the Clinton years, the nation’s leadership was largely comprised of proponents of deregulation. In fact, by his second term, Clinton was almost entirely surrounded by rabid free market enthusiasts. A former chairman at Goldman Sachs, Robert Rubin, was Secretary of the Treasury, Alan Greenspan was still at the helm of the Federal Reserve and Phil Gramm was the head of the powerful Senate Banking Committee. All of these men had close ties to Wall Street and made no secret of their intention to release bankers from the burdensome shackles of regulation and oversight.

Reforming Reform

In 2008, economist Joseph Stiglitz warned of the enduring negative consequences of deregulation. At a hearing held in front of the House Committee on Financial Services, Stiglitz invoked Adam Smith saying, “Even he recognized that unregulated markets will try to restrict competition, and without strong competition markets will not be efficient.” One of Stiglitz’s solutions was to restore transparency to investments and the markets themselves by restricting “banks’ dealing with criminals, unregulated and non-transparent hedge funds, and off-shore banks that do not conform to regulatory and accounting standards of our highly regulated financial entities.”

For emphasis he noted, “We have shown that we can do this when we want, when terrorism is the issue.”

Still, the nagging question remains as to what reform might look like. After all, not all deregulation is irresponsible. Most of the discussion in the media surrounding deregulation revolves around the concept that our banking institutions are “too big to fail.” Thus the rallying cry for reinstating Glass-Steagall and separating banks from investment banks. I’m in tepid agreement with the underlying principle, but the reality of the situation is far more complicated. The fact is banking has gone global and the deregulation genie is out of the bottle.

As I said earlier, Glass-Steagall was as much about instilling a culture of prudency to the banking world as it was about erecting a barrier between commercial banks and investment banks. Advocates like Elizabeth Warren like to say that prior to 1999 and the repeal of Glass-Steagall, the economy functioned through periods of both prosperity and recession since 1934 without the banking sector once collapsing. It’s a fair, but oversimplified assertion that overlooks the fact that Glass-Steagall was on a ventilator in 1978 and dead by 1980. A 30-year run of prosperity from 1978 to 2008, with a few brief recessions in between, is nothing to sneeze at.

Restoring balance to the banking sector does not necessarily require separating the banks. Not yet at least. It begins with transparency and reestablishing the culture of prudency that has been conspicuously absent over the past decade. After all, you cannot value what you cannot see; nor can you mitigate risk unless you first manage reward.

What this really boils down to is accountability, which is ultimately a behavioral issue. Allowing investors to actually see how a bank behaves by viewing the size and scope of their transactions would theoretically assuage their appetite for risk. Given these conclusions, it’s easier to make the case that our current president would provide more accountability and inspire behavioral changes on Wall Street, particularly given Romney’s intransigence when it comes to considering financial reform. But tough talk against Wall Street has all but disappeared from Obama’s rhetoric leaving little hope that a second term will elicit any further positive change. So this week, while neither man seems serious about financial reform, the status quo is better than further deregulation and letting bankers rule the roost.

Tie goes to the incumbent.

Remember the Fifth of November

After everything that went down involving the corrupt practices behind the financial collapse in 2008, I find it amazing that only two people have been found worthy of prosecution thus far. I find it less amazing and more ridiculous that both of them happen to be brown.

Sandwiched between Halloween and Thanksgiving is a new American holiday known as Bank Transfer Day, which takes place this year on Nov. 5. Rejoice.

The movement against Corporatocracy has taken hold and found its footing. And while the media struggle to parse a bumper sticker message from the Occupy Wall Street movement, the occupiers continue to grow in numbers, awakening America’s dormant revolutionary spirit. Bank Transfer Day is one of the first tangible manifestations of the Occupy phenomenon whereby Americans are encouraged to move their money from large public banking institutions to community banks and, more specifically, member-owned credit unions.

Don’t be misled by Chicken Little pundits on Fox News. This is not a run on the banks and it will neither cripple the economy nor coerce Congress into enacting prudent regulatory reform. But it will send a small and important message to the American financial oligarchy that people are paying attention and ready to take action against institutional greed and corruption.

If you are one of the tens of thousands of Americans who are planning on participating in this holiday, there are a few practical rules of engagement to heed. The first is to put away your Guy Fawkes mask when removing your hard-earned money from a bank. While Nov. 5 is indeed Guy Fawkes Day in England and his likeness is symbolic of Anonymous, the group largely credited with the more surreptitious planning behind Occupy Wall Street, wearing a mask into a bank and demanding money— even when it’s your own—is still a pretty terrible idea.

Moreover, it is important to understand the overall health of the institution you’re considering moving your money into. Although it is unlikely most of us will move sums that exceed federal deposit insurance guarantees, risk is a consideration in any financial transaction. Because federal law requires every bank and credit union to maintain minimum capitalization and liquidity standards, a significant growth in deposits in a short period of time without income producing instruments such as home mortgages and auto loans to offset deposits can overwhelm a small institution. In fact, some smaller banks and credit unions may be unable to increase their deposit base, forcing them to turn potential customers away.

It is wise, therefore, to treat Nov. 5 as the beginning of a process, not an event. Consolidating debt and improving your personal credit rating are important first steps that should be taken to solidify your personal foundation. At this point, you will be able to more easily move deposits as well as loan obligations on your personal assets to a community bank or a credit union. A great banking relationship is one that works both ways.

One of the primary reasons small, stable banks are having a difficult time in this recession is the onerous burdens placed upon them due to the passage of the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act in early 2010. Despite the honorable intent implied in the name of the bill, Dodd-Frank did more to handcuff our economy than help consumers. In fact, the regulatory burden placed on community banks and credit unions is so disproportionate that it favors larger financial institutions that are sitting on (literally) trillions of dollars instead of pumping them back through the economy via the consumer. These banks and investment banks have the personnel and financial wherewithal to handle the mountains of paperwork required to eventually turn consumers and business owners down for loans. What we’re left with is a sadly ironic low-rate lending environment that no one can participate in. The Obama administration has taken the stance that any reform is positive despite the fact that this exact scenario played out for more than a decade in Japan with similar results. The combination of Congress’ Dodd-Frank Act and the Federal Reserve’s Quantitative Easing policy has essentially brought the banking sector to a grinding halt for the majority of Americans. There is no such thing as a “character loan” anymore. Fall one month behind on your mortgage payment or fail to pay your credit card bill on time and you are out of luck. And as for the giant Wall Street firms that got us into this mess and continue their reckless behavior to this day—it’s business as usual.

The Occupy Wall Street protestors are keeping a tally of the number of protestors arrested for exercising their constitutional right to peaceably assemble versus the number of Wall Street bankers busted. It’s more than 1,000 to 1. The one is former hedge fund manager Raj Rajaratnam (Left). This number may double, however, as prosecutors have set their sights on another man named Rajat Gupta (Right), former partner at McKinsey and Company. After everything that went down involving the corrupt practices behind the financial collapse in 2008, I find it amazing that only two people have been found worthy of prosecution thus far. I find it less amazing and more ridiculous that both of them happen to be brown.

But take heart, my dear revolutionaries. Progress and change are upon us all. If you believe it is useless to resist the will of mega-corporations and government, witness the decision by several banks, most recently Bank of America, to rein in their proposed new banking fees. This was a victory for the consumer and a testament to the power of protest. This effort was successful for the same reason Bank Transfer Day will signal a real shift of dollars. It is also the reason why Republican presidential nominee Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 plan is being revealed as an anti-poor regressive policy, the Citizen’s United ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court is being ridiculed, and war veterans have joined protests across the nation.

The reason, my friends, is that the jig is up. The 99 percent have woken up and they’re pissed.

It will take time to untie the thousands of knots the 1 percent has tied in the financial system, effectively choking off the money supply from flowing throughout the economy. It will be done one knot at a time. And for those who believe that the Occupy Wall Street movement is simply a plan for the redistribution of wealth in America, it’s not. This is about creating equitable access to wealth and the ability for people everywhere to thrive on a level playing field that properly rewards equal measures of risk, planning, luck and diligence – the fundamentals of entrepreneurship that comprise the so-called “American Dream.” At a minimum this is about creating a system that does not punish those who seek to earn a fair wage for an honest day’s work.